700 miles north of the Arctic circle, two lozenges of frostnip blossom hard and white below my eyes, like war paint. Cratered by sleep deprivation, my brain isn’t firing on all cylinders, while the engine in the snowmobile very much is, propelling me at speed along white military roads and across permafrost. Visibility starts to fade, then fail, as I leave the terra firma of Thule Air Force Base in the far northwest of Greenland and begin to motor over fast sea ice. As we round Mount Dundas, a mesa-like promontory rising and extending into North Star Bay, I realise the respirator on my helmet has iced through.
When it works, it creates an airflow to ensure the visor remains transparent and does not fog up, but it’s so fucking cold, pushing -50°C, that the apparatus has completely frozen shut and the helmet’s field of vision is severely limited. A small icicle descends from the mouthpiece as it would from the eaves of an alpine hut.
Not wanting to be left behind by the rest of the party as they speed ahead, I’ve raised the visor for just a moment. The biting arctic air blasts my face; an unsettling compound of ice and fire. The skin and tissue on my cheeks is numb and rigid; flash-frozen.
“Well, that was stupid,” Brian Buckley says to me as I pull up to the group and explain the problem. “Take your gloves off and hold the palms of your hands to your cheeks until they thaw.” My hands are miniature furnaces, cheeks freezer ice cubes going liquid. But it stings less.
The biting arctic air blasts my face; an unsettling compound of ice and fire
I’ve been going on adventures with Brian since I was eight years old. As I started to segue from childhood to teen, when canoeing Maine rivers or cycling the boreal forests of Newfoundland and Labrador, his stories from the Antarctic instilled a budding wanderlust. For his sins, he’s taken me under his wing as a helper servicing the Greenland Inland Traverse expedition, a 1500 mile cross-icecap research and resupply convoy from Thule Air Force Base to Summit Station, which perches on the peak of the ice sheet at an altitude of 10,530 feet.
The base is largely run by Danish contractors. The day prior the mess hall was buzzing with excitement after a group of Danes returned from a snowmobiling excursion into the fjord having sighted nine different polar bears. With a rare Sunday off, and access to snow vehicles, we’ve decided to explore the Wolstenholme Fjord from its five mile mouth to its four sources, 20 miles to the east.
Nicknamed the world’s greatest ice machine, the fjord is fed by a quartet of colossal glaciers that calve off into summer water, creating icebergs. In the autumn, as seawater congeals into saline slush and finally solidifies, they become suspended in the ice and ride out the winter in the inlet. We drive the snowmobiles to the lip of the bergs which sometimes tower hundreds of feet above us. When we cut the engines there’s an otherworldly stillness.
The Wolstenholme Fjord is perhaps most famous for being the site of a broken arrow incident when, in 1968, a B-52 on patrol carrying four B28FI thermonuclear bombs crash landed on a Cold War alert mission, in North Star Bay. One of the four was never recovered and more than likely rests on the seabed below. The knowledge of this only amps up the geiger counter of uncertainty when walking over the bay’s niveous surface, which squeaks like styrofoam underfoot as we approach the icebergs.
The niveous surface squeaks like styrofoam underfoot as we approach the icebergs
The sea ice is more or less uniform with the occasional pocket of sastrugi, where wind has sculpted it into little frozen dunes. The area around ice-locked bergs, on the other hand, is restive and riven. A zone of wreckage peels away on all sides, hard white slabs and planks thrusting chaotically in a hundred different directions. I scramble over it, sometimes on hands and knees, never certain whether it’s going to hold weight or collapse into shimmering powder.
The circle of ice directly around the iceberg is the same cerulean colour as the Kid’s Crest toothpaste I used as a child, sparkling and blue. My senses are dialled up to eleven as I look down into metres of ice, where ivory sub-surface compression ruptures extend downwards like giant white claymores into increasingly inky depths.
The iceberg looms above, perhaps thirty feet tall at its peak, white as confectioners sugar and stacked like a layer cake. Two thick bands of Crest run parallel and diagonal across the enormous plinth. I’m overcome with a sense of smallness in the face of titanic natural forces and, when my friend Galen speaks my name, I nearly jump out of my skin.
We climb back on the Ski-Doos and continue onwards along the length of the fjord, which runs perfectly east-west for 20 miles. The sense of space is unparalleled. The ice continues in a perfect plane, interrupted only by lofty monoliths snagged in its geometry. Large rolling ridges of black rock run along either side of the fjord, sometimes climbing to a thousand feet or more. In the summer months, they play host to peregrine falcons, which hatch eggs and hunt from its aeries. The ridges are interrupted by even larger glaciers which emerge from the horizon to inundate the rock.
The fjord is the only place on the planet where four separate glaciers converge. Watching them roll over dark metamorphic gneiss rock brings to mind bearnaise poured over sirloin. As we draw nearer, the scale of the glaciers becomes easier to appreciate. In some spots sheer walls hove up hundreds of feet. In others they emerge like nightmare teeth, splintering and jagged. When a pressure crack crepitates through the glacier it vibrates along the spine like a plucked bass string.
There’s something ineffable about the landscape, but I’ll do my best to explain. It is almost absurdly basic. There are three colours discernible to the southern eye: white, blue and dusky brown. It feels like there are just three elements: ice, air and rock. Everything about the arctic in winter is indifferent, dead, ready to syphon the heat and life out of its denizens. Listening to the resounding motor of your heart in this frozen world, the sluiceway of your circulatory system, the bellows of your lungs, gives depth to a sense of being alive.
We turn away from the glaciers and head due west. It’s 2pm but the sun is already going rich gold and beginning to dip towards Ellesmere Island. It’s a joyride no longer, we need to get back while there’s still daylight. At 40mph we cover distance quickly, whipping past the glacial landscape and enormous knuckles of ice.
Its white fleecy fur catches the waning light and gives it away as an immature polar bear
A shadow zips across the fjord. Backlit by the sun, it’s difficult to make out what it is. We initially think it’s another snowmobile because of its rapid speed. But as we draw closer it’s easy to see that it’s propelled by legs, not the tracks of a Ski-Doo. Its white fleecy fur catches the waning light and gives it away as an immature polar bear. Wanting to offer it space and not bother or frighten it, we cut the engines, coast and watch it make tracks towards the sloping scarps of the fjord. Its head pops up behind a maroon slab, just once, then evaporates. I won't see it again.
We hear later from our Danish friends that three of the nine polar bears were shot by hunters from Qanaaq, the northernmost indigenous settlement in Greenland. We also find out that a mother was on the ice with two cubs, and shot and killed alongside one of them, so the immature bear we saw running across the ice was most likely orphaned the day before, its sibling despatched too, which explains the intense fear it displayed when crossing paths with us.
As with the Maasai and lions in Kenya, killing a polar bear amongst the Greenlandic Inuit tribes is a rite of passage for young men becoming adults, and to be a hunter they must forsake any other work and hunt from a dogsled rather than a snowmobile. Every facet of the polar bear carcass, from its fur to its teeth, is utilised and consumed by the hunters and their dogs. Still, no matter how one attempts to rationalise it, there is something absurdly sorrowful about this animal encounter.
There is something absurdly sorrowful about this animal encounter
During the depths of winter in the high arctic the sun shows for as little as thirty minutes. However, it’s a far cry from legitimate sunlight. Weepy crepuscular beams peer tentatively over the valley edge of Pituffik down onto the base. It seems like dawn is going to break, but it never does. That’s the way I feel about what I’ve seen: a ray of light in the gloaming. Many years later, I still wonder about the bear cub. It exists in memory; a red streak of vivid life coursing through a monochrome, inhospitable world. Fragile, perhaps doomed, yet persisting nonetheless.